When flight Air France 006 Paris-New York, approaching US airspace in March 2021, flies into a huge electrical storm, something terrifying happens: plane, passengers and crew are inexplicably and irrevocably duplicated.
Among the passengers are a hit man, an emotionally needy architect and his alienated film editor girlfriend. There’s a Nigerian R&B star with a secret, a traumatised US veteran and his family, a go-getting corporate lawyer, and a critically acclaimed but as yet commercially unsuccessful French author whose past novels include the delightfully titled Failures That Missed the Mark.
Adriana Hunter’s English language translation of Hervé Le Tellier’s million- selling, 2020 Prix Goncourt-winning novel gets off to a flying start. Motifs of reproduction and revivification abound – cancer, pregnancy, publication – anticipating the grosser duplication of Air France 006.
It’s in the vertiginous conceptual abyss that opens up between these (now) two planes that this already pacey and highly entertaining novel goes into narrative hyperdrive. The merciless and uncanny gaze of the Doppelgänger or double has provided literary fuel at least since Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson. Caught up in just such a “giddying whirl”, one passenger of Air France 006 asks, “What do you think: am I the original or the copy?”
With increasing inevitability, police officers and spooks begin turning up to interrupt each scene. The reader must question everything that’s gone before, as this rollercoaster of a novel is also a gripping puzzle.
Le Tellier is a mathematician and current president of the experimental writers group Oulip. Its members have been applying mathematical and scientific ideas to writing since 1960. In scientific terms, Le Tellier himself describes The Anomaly as a “thought experiment”, but if so it’s one that he pulls off with a rare lightness and aplomb. He and translator Hunter also tantalise with traces of hidden word games, with echoes of past literary greats (including Borges, Stendhal and, especially, Calvino) and of popular sci-fi films such as Men in Black and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
With its thrillingly self-conscious genre fluidity, there are shades of Umberto Eco in this uniquely dazzling and thought-provoking, high-octane blockbuster.
Tony White is the author of novels including The Fountain in the Forest (Faber & Faber)